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Who answers your 911 call?

It's the phone number that can help save a life.

But calling 911 and expecting help to come running is becoming more of a gamble than ever before -- especially in a tech-savvy place like Silicon Valley, where people rely heavily on cell phones and are more likely to try out a new technology such as Internet phone service.

Now more than ever, the emergency phone system is being put to the test. As mobile and Internet phone services spread, it's becoming harder for 911 dispatchers to pinpoint a caller's geographic location, a crucial element of 911 and speedy response times.

In most Santa Clara County cities, 911 calls from a cell phone will end up at the local, city-run police dispatch centers. But dial 911 from Fremont or Menlo Park and it's more likely to end up at the California Highway Patrol catchall dispatch center in Vallejo, where it will be rerouted to a closer 911 center -- an extra step that could slow emergency response times.

For those using one of the new Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, phone services, calls to 911 might not even make it to a dispatcher because many of the providers aren't yet able to provide direct access into the 911 network. [Via]